Using campaign appearances, e-mails to supporters, and Iowa TV ads, Illinois Senator Barack Obama has repeatedly reminded voters that his presidential campaign does not accept contributions from lobbyists or political action committees, casting his decision as a noble departure from the ways of Washington.
He hit the theme hard again in Tuesday's Democratic debate in Chicago as he sought to capitalize on rival Hillary Clinton's remark last weekend that taking lobbyists' cash is acceptable because they "represent real Americans."
"The people in this stadium need to know who we're going to fight for," Obama said at Soldier Field. "The reason that I'm running for president is because of you, not because of folks who are writing big checks, and that's a clear message that has to be sent, I think, by every candidate."
But behind Obama's campaign rhetoric about taking on special interests lies a more complicated truth. A Globe review of Obama's campaign finance records shows that he collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from lobbyists and PACs as a state legislator in Illinois, a US senator, and a presidential aspirant.
In Obama's eight years in the Illinois Senate, from 1996 to 2004, almost two-thirds of the money he raised for his campaigns -- $296,000 of $461,000 -- came from PACs, corporate contributions, or unions, according to Illinois Board of Elections records. He tapped financial services firms, real estate developers, healthcare providers, oil companies, and many other corporate interests, the records show.
Obama's US Senate campaign committee, starting with his successful run in 2004, has collected $128,000 from lobbyists and $1.3 million from PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit organization that tracks money in politics. His $1.3 million from PACs represents 8 percent of what he has raised overall. Clinton's Senate committee, by comparison, has raised $3 million from PACs, 4 percent of her total amount raised, the group said.
In addition, Obama's own federal PAC, Hopefund, took in $115,000 from 56 PACs in the 2005-2006 election cycle out of $4.4 million the PAC raised, according to CQ MoneyLine, which collects Federal Election Commission data. Obama then used those PAC contributions -- including thousands from defense contractors, law firms, and the securities and insurance industries -- to build support for his presidential run by making donations to Democratic Party organizations and candidates around the country.
Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that after seeing the influence of lobbyists firsthand during his two years in Washington, Obama decided before he entered the presidential race that he would take a different approach to fund-raising than he had in the past.
"He's leading by example and taking steps that he feels need to be taken on the national stage to clean up the undue influence of Washington lobbyists on the policies and priorities of Washington," Psaki said. "His leadership on this issue is an evolving process."
Psaki said Obama believes that healthcare lobbyists have blocked progress toward universal health coverage, and that oil company lobbyists have blocked badly needed changes to America's energy policies.
Though Obama has returned thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from registered federal lobbyists since he declared his candidacy in February, his presidential campaign has maintained ties with lobbyists and lobbying firms to help raise some of the $58.9 million he collected through the first six months of 2007. Obama has raised more than $1.4 million from members of law and consultancy firms led by partners who are lobbyists, The Los Angeles Times reported last week. And The Hill, a Washington newspaper, reported earlier this year that Obama's campaign had reached out to lobbyists' networks to use their contacts to help build his fund-raising base.
This activity, along with Obama's past contributions from lobbyists and PACs, has drawn fire from opposing campaigns. Some political analysts say Obama, by casting himself as an uncorrupted good-government crusader, has set himself up for charges of hypocrisy.
"If you're running a campaign about credibility, that credibility and persona are so important you better be squeaky clean," said Richard Semiatin, a political scientist at American University. "While he's getting good traction out of this, I think in the long term he's really got to be careful."
SCROLL TO CONTINUE WITH CONTENT
Our Summer Campaign Is Underway
Support Common Dreams Today
Independent News and Views Putting People Over Profit
From the day he entered the presidential race, Obama has projected an outside-the-Beltway persona, positioning himself as the Washington change agent that Americans are pining for. Last week, his campaign began running a new TV spot in Iowa, in which the narrator says, "He's leading by example, refusing contributions from PACs and Washington lobbyists who have too much power today."
In the Democrats' previous debate, on July 23, Obama was unequivocal when challenged by former Alaska senator Mike Gravel about who his donors were.
"Well, the fact is I don't take PAC money and I don't take lobbyists' money," Obama said, touting his work on an ethics reform bill that just passed Congress. "That's the kind of leadership that I've shown in the Senate. That's the kind of leadership that I showed when I was a state legislator. And that's the kind of leadership that I'll show as president of the United States."
And on June 25, right before the second quarter ended, Obama sent an e-mail to supporters asking them to contribute to his campaign to make up for the lack of special-interest money.
"Candidates typically spend a week like this -- right before the critical June 30th financial reporting deadline -- on the phone day and night, begging Washington lobbyists and special interest PACs to write huge checks," the e-mail said. "Not me. Our campaign has rejected the money-for-influence game and refused to accept funds from registered federal lobbyists and political action committees."
Obama's main Democratic target on the issue of lobbyist and PAC contributions has been Clinton, whom Obama has been working to paint as a figurehead for the broken politics of Washington. Through June, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Clinton had collected $413,000 from lobbyists and $533,000 from PACs -- leading all 2008 presidential contenders in both categories. Clinton has also raised about $3 million from PACs and $400,000 from lobbyists for her Senate campaigns, according to the group.
Clinton's campaign declined to comment.
Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Iowa, said Obama, given his record of raising special-interest money throughout his political career, was taking a "gamble" in holding himself up as a beacon of purity.
"He probably will be hurt if he's put in a position where he's trying to draw very fine distinctions between his present campaign and his past behavior," Squire said.
Obama's campaign is relying almost exclusively on an unprecedented network of grass-roots donors and activists -- nearly 260,000 of them had given him money through June alone.
And some good-government activists say that, past fund-raising practices aside, Obama has genuinely been a champion for ethics and campaign reform, both in the Illinois Legislature and in Congress.
"On the one hand, sure, he rose to power as many people do in this town, which is to raise money from the people who have the money," said Gary Kalman, of the advocacy group US PIRG.
At the same time, he added, Obama has championed public financing for elections and he fought hard to pass the federal ethics reform bill.
© Copyright 2007 The Boston Globe